Roman Books That I Wish Still Existed

17 Sep

The number one game among Roman Historians, that’s not shag, marry, kill using ancient figures and members of your research area, is the “what books do you wish we could find in the Herculaneum library?” game. (1) Everyone has their favourites that have gone missing into the ether of time.  Some of them are poetry, many many are histories and chronicles and some are much stranger works. Each of them would give us as historians a new insight into Roman life, and would be invaluable and wonderful to read. Only some of them however, would I personally be happy to stamp on a puppy to get my hands on. Sure I wouldn’t *complain* if we got some more Cicero or Ovid, but I’m never get to get enthused about such a thing. We know more than enough about the Late Republic anyway.  No. I want the fun stuff. I want the weird stuff.  So here’s my answer to that question.(2)


5. Tacitus – Caligula

Caligula is – as everyone knows – my absolute all time favourite person in history ever. And yet the one bit of Tacitus that I would actually enjoy reading, the bit about Caligula, is missing. Gone. Mysteriously lost. Way to break my heart Tacitus. Dick. Actually it’s not Tacitus’s fault. The Annals survive in just two fragmented medieval manuscripts, neither of which overlap in terms of surviving content. But if this accident of survival had gone a different way, and Caligula’s books had survived, the amount of things we would know about him would be increased exponentially, especially because Tacitus focused so heavily on the psychology of his subjects and on detailed recreations of dramatic scenes which would be so much fun for the claims about imperial brothels and incest. Just imagine how wonderful it would be to have Tacitus’s analysis of Drusilla and Caesonia! If I ever meet a genie in a bottle, the return of this book will be my third wish (3).


4. Claudius – The Reign of Augustus

In contrast to my burning love for Caligula and Agrippina, I have a powerful animosity towards their uncle Claudius. In part this is Robert Graves’s fault. Grave’s Claudius is so saintly and perfect that I immediately and irrationally loathe him. That I believe he was intimately involved in his nephew’s assassination doesn’t help. Having his analysis of the divine Augustus’s reign then would answer a lot of questions: How did Claudius feel about Augustus’s bloody rise to power? How boring a writer was Claudius? Did his books get lost because they were too boring to be copied out? Or were they unexpectedly filthy? I hope they were unexpectedly filthy. He did marry Messalina.(4) I bet his analysis of Augustus and Livia’s meeting and marriage would have been quite something.


3. Domitian – Care of the Hair


We mentioned this the other day, and I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to read the wildly moralising, always insecure Domitian’s poetic writings about male grooming. The emperor – the actual emperor of the Roman empire – write a book about male hair care, with reference to Homer. This is BRILLIANT. Imagine if the pope wrote a book about trainers and coats with Shakespeare quotes in it. Who WOULDN’T buy that? Not only would it give us an insight into the mind of Domitian, a man who was accused of fly murder, and into a reigning emperor, it would also allow us to see how Roman aristocratic men expected themselves to look. That’s powerful social and cultural information about men and masculinity and luxury and dress. But even more importantly, it’s a book about HAIR by the EMPEROR. DUDE.


2. Suetonius – Lives of Famous Whores

Suetonius comes up constantly when we talk about the Roman world because of his biographies of emperors, but that was far from his only book. Suetonius was a prolific man, with varied interests. Interests which ranged all the way from emperors to prostitutes. I cannot even begin to image what Lives of Famous Whores must have looked like, who its target audience could have been or why anyone would write it. And that is exactly why I wish it still existed, because obviously Suetonius could. And apparently there were enough famous prostitutes in Roman history about to fill a whole book. Isn’t that just wonderful! That is a whole new perspective on Roman prostitution and sex and relationships that we don’t have access to right now. In an ideal world, I’d also like his Physical Defects of Mankind, Terms of Greek Abuse, Roman Manners and Customs and Critical Signs Used in Books. Just for my own personal use.


1. Agrippina the Younger – Memoirs

I have talked about my great and powerful love for Agrippina Minor before. As the adopted granddaughter of Tiberius, daughter of sister of Caligula, wife (and niece) of Claudius and mother of Nero she was intimately involved in the entirety of Roman imperial politics for much longer than most, and in a way that no other man or woman was. And much of her involvement was through her own design. Because she was amazing. And she wrote an autobiography, in which – according to Tacitus – she chronicled the misfortunes that her family had endured. The misfortune of being one of the most powerful families in human history presumably. If we had this we would not only have a first person account of Rome from Tiberius onward, we would have a first person FEMALE account of Rome. Something we are currently sorely lacking. I would happily burn at least three other boring Roman books to get this one. Hell, I’d burn a Roman to find this one.




(1) Herculaneum is a small town outside Pompeii which was also preserved by Vesuvius, but is much less well known or well excavated. One of the buildings that was partially excavated was the Villa of the Papyri, otherwise known as the library and about 1700 charred scrolls were saved. Currently however, these scrolls are unreadable though efforts are always underway to scan them. Thus, there is a real possibility that one day we might find we have otherwise lost works if we can find the technology to extract the writing.


(2) You’ll have to ask me in person for my answers to the shag, marry kill questions.


(3) Wish 1: Andrew Garfield to be my devoted husband. Wish 2: the first thing on this list.


(4) messalina inspired one of my all time favourite bits of Roman writing, from Juvenal – that old misogynist:

“Are you worried by Eppia’s tricks, of a non-Imperial kind?

Take a look at the rivals of the gods; hear how Claudius

Suffered. When his wife, Messalina, knew he was asleep,

She would go about with no more than a maid for escort.

The Empress dared, at night, to wear the hood of a whore,

And she preferred a mat to her bed in the Palatine Palace.

Dressed in that way, with a blonde wig hiding her natural

Hair, she’d enter a brothel that stank of old soiled sheets,

And make an empty cubicle, her own; then sell herself,

Her nipples gilded, naked, taking She-Wolf for a name,

Displaying the belly you came from, noble Britannicus,

She’d flatter her clients on entry, and take their money.

Then lie there obligingly, delighting in every stroke.

Later on, when the pimp dismissed his girls, she’d leave

Reluctantly, waiting to quit her cubicle there, till the last

Possible time, her taut sex still burning, inflamed with lust,

Then she’d leave, exhausted by man, but not yet sated,

A disgusting creature with filthy face, soiled by the lamp’s

Black, taking her brothel-stench back to the Emperor’s bed.”

Bad Emperors: Domitian

26 Aug

With Domitian we reach the end of a string of 2 good emperors, which if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know is actually pretty good. An unprecedented streak actually. Titus Flavius Domitianus, who becomes Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus, better known as Domitian, follows his father, Vespasian and his brother Titus to be the last of the short lived Flavian dynasty. These two were personally responsible for the subduing of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Great Temple so naturally the Romans thought they were great.

Domitian's happy face

Domitian’s happy face



Daddy Vespasian came to power on the back of this victory after a year long civil war following Nero’s suicide when Domitian is about 14. Unfortunately, at the time Vespasian was in Jerusalem and only Domitian was in Rome so teenage Domitian ended up being accidental emperor for a bit. Which, given that four emperors had been brutally and publicly murdered in the preceding 11 months was probably simultaneously brilliant and terrifying.(1) What he did with this was allegedly shag some ladies and attempt to march into Germany. This is obviously very bad. Romans have long given up on Germany – too many trees – but also explicable.


Here’s the key to Domitian, and it’s ludicrously simple: he’s unbearably, all consumingly jealous of his big brother. Titus is the big brother of every little brother’s nightmares. He’s kinda handsome, he’s smart, he’s funny, he’s a great general who has won spectacular, history changing battles alongside his dad, he’s banging Berenice, the daughter of Herod Agrippa and queen of Judea. He’s got a whacking great arch with his and their dad’s faces on it in the Forum Romanum. What’s Domitian got? Nothing. Titus is the prom king, football star, who scored the winning goal against the arch rivals in the homecoming game and is banging the head cheerleader, but is also top of his class and really nice and kind to animals, and funny and well dressed and can give a thoughtful opinion on New Yorker articles and David Foster Wallace. And he’s also very openly your parents’ favourite. You, on the other hand, play Call of Duty a lot, and only have two friends and have a bass guitar that you learnt to play Come As You Are on once and haven’t touched since because your dad mentioned it and you hate your dad for being the ex prom king, football star but you also want him to love you as much as he loves your brother even though you will never be your brother. Domitian’s 14 year old attempt to start a war in Germany is every unhappy little brother’s attempt to try out for the football team despite being chubby, small and fundamentally unsuited. Everything Domitian does is that.


The arch of Titus, built by Vespasian for Domitian’s big brother.

As punishment for this attempt, Domitian is forced by his dad to follow him everywhere, in order to remind him that he was a child. Domitian finds this just unbearable. Worst of all, Vespasian makes him follow behind his brother wherever they go. So, more than anything we should be impressed that Domitian didn’t just up and stab Titus at any point. This is possibly because Domitian is a bit wet. He’s the kid who would totally talk about doing a school shooting and scream homophobic abuse at you on CoD if you sniped him wrong, but cry if you showed him an actual gun.

Anyway, Domitian is insignificant and fully marginalised during both dad and brother’s reigns, but finally, after Titus dies after just two years of ruling (including presiding over the Vesuvius disaster), Domitian gets to be emperor. Again. As a grown up. Here’s where things get fun, because we have first person accounts of Domitian’s reign from various people, most notably Tacitus. And my god does Tacitus hate Domitian. Or he pretends to. because he didn’t actually publish anything during Domitian’s 14 year reign, he waited til he was dead to start declaring that Domitian was evil and writing super creepy hagiographic accounts of his father-in-law.  Plus a lot of his criticisms are…a bit weird. Everyone had to be sycophantic apparently. Which – I don’t about you – I don’t find highly surprising in an imperial system. Especially not as I’ve read Pliny the Younger’s absolutely revolting panygeric to the supposedly great emperor Trajan, which Pliny read aloud to his face in the senate and is unbearable to anyone with a jot of self awareness.(2) On top of that Tacitus uses the classic old “Domitian hated me and my father in law and proved it by giving him loads of honours, two triumphs and two extremely important governorships and letting us both live very comfortably” line. Which, given that Domitian did kill at least 10 named, distinguished senators, seems a bit unlikely.  So basically, everything that Tacitus says about Domitian can maybe be taken with a pinch of salt. On top of that, by the time he got round to writing about Domitian Suetonius had been exiled by Hadrian and didn’t have any sources to work from so his biography is only 23 chapters long and somewhat vague. It’s a list at best to be honest.

Here’s what we do know about Domitian: he was a big fan of games and building things. For just about every other emperor having games and building things is good, it shows investment in the city and a desire to glorify Rome and that you care about the people. For Domitian however, games and buildings are bad for some unclear reason. Probably that he was murdered. He also undertook a moral crusade in Rome, removing people of low moral character from the senate, for example expelling a quaestor who was too fond of singing and acting (remember Nero), and enacting the proper punishment for a Vestal Virgin who had been caught shagging: burying her alive. This is one of the very very few times this ever occurred in Roman history. Now, I feel this moral crusading would have gone down better if he hadn’t got himself a reputation for being a total shagger himself. One of my favourite bits of Suetonius is when he claims Domitian called sex “bed-wrestling, as if it were a sport”.(3) Which is obviously brilliant and is a term that should be more widely used. But it makes his moralising look a bit like when the Tories went all “family values” in the 90s and then it turned out they were massive hypocrites who were all shagging each other in horrible ways.(4) Even if Domitian wasn’t a shagger, apparently people thought he was and so his holier than thou thing apparently doesn’t go down well.  Finally, he wrote a book called the Care of the Hair, which contained poems and classical references and is my number three on my personal “books I wish weren’t lost to time” list.

All in all, Domitian can’t catch a break. Nothing he does is technically bad, or would be given a positive spin if his brother had done it. If Titus had refilled the libraries and built a forum and insisted that the rules concerning the Jewish tax and all morality laws were followed rigidly, these would have been evidence if his fine moral character and learning.(5) But because Domitian did them, and he wasn’t good with people, they were evidence that he was an unbending, hypocritical dick. Domitian is the kind of guy who reads poetry and people call him pretentious. He thwarts an army revolt and people say its luck. He doesn’t come out for a day and people claim he spends his time sitting in a closed room stabbing flies with a pen. Really. They said that.(6) That is not the behaviour of anyone real. That’s mean rumours. Domitian could have literally been Augustus reincarnated and people would have been pissed at him for something. Domitian is the kind of guy who has a wart on his forehead and that’s all anyone talks about (according to Suetonius, it’s a festering wart) Domitian is the rubbish brother, the guy you wish you liked but you just don’t. The guy who’s done nothing wrong, but you’re terrified of getting stuck in a room with. The guy who wore suits to university lectures. The guy you can’t even make up weird sex rumours about so you have to resort to the flies thing. There’s nothing wrong with Domitian, he’s just dislikable. And it’s still true. Domitian is no one’s favourite emperor. No one writes books or films about Domitian. No one loves Domitian because Domitian never actually did anything awful or interesting.

After years of being poorly tolerated Domitian is assassinated in a deeply embarrassing way, a way that just encapsulates his whole life. Domitian was murdered by a dude called Stephanus because Stephanus had been caught embezzling the imperial fisk and feared execution. So he faked an arm injury and hid a knife in the sling, then stabbed Domitian in his bedroom. Pleasingly, Suetonius claims that the 44 year old emperor fought his assassin like an animal, which I’d like to believe but as Suetonius wasn’t in that room, and at the time of writing was had lost his job and was possibly in exile, then I’m not necessarily going to take his word on it. Even though I would really like to. Because I am a good historian. And that’s how Domitian dies: stabbed by an embezzler in a fake sling for no good reason.  Such is Domitian’s life.

Domitian is said to have been extremely insecure, which I can definitely believe, and was terrified of being assassinated. Which again, given what he grew up around, I can totally believe.  When he was alive, Domitian was roundly loathed by the senatorial class, without ever really doing anything wrong. He was ignored and marginalised by his father and brother for the crime of being not as cool as Titus. He wrote a book about hair care  – hair care! – and this wasn’t enough to get him remembered. Domitian tried everything he could to be a good emperor and to be his brother – who let us not forget shacked up with an Eastern Queen and tried to bring her to Rome, making him essentially Mark Antony – and somehow completely failed. And so, Domitian, eternally disappointing little brother, is forgotten when even Tiberius got remembered. So maybe he should be Poor Domitian.



Titus destroying the Great Temple, from the Arch of Titus. Because Titus was a dick.





(1) Galba, who overthrew Nero was pulled from his litter and beheaded by Otho in the Forum Romanum; Otho losesa battle and kills himself,Vitellius is also brutally beheaded.

(2) Turns out, that even for the “good emperors” what you do if you don’t want to get a bit forced-suicided is violently slag off their predecessor (unless they were the current emperor’s dad) and list off off basically a description of a mythical Augustus, replacing Augustus’s name with the name of the emperor in front of you. Shocking right?

(3) clinopalen. Which sounds so unsexy that I love it even more. Suetonius calls this “constant sexual intercourse”. Constant!

(4) I’m so sorry for making you all think about John Major and Edwina Curry again.

(5) Jews were allowed to practice monotheism and were exempt from sacrificing to the emperor but had to pay a tax. This led to sometimes complicated trials where magistrates had to “check” whether people were really Jewish or were pretending to get out of sacrificing. For men this meant checking whether they were circumcised. This leads to Suetonius’s one and only personal anecdote in his Lives, for Domitian’s reign: Dom: 12 “Besides other taxes, that on the Jews was levied with the utmost rigour, and those were prosecuted who without publicly acknowledging that faith yet lived as Jews, as well as those who concealed their origin and did not pay the tribute levied upon their people. I recall being present in my youth when the person of a man ninety years old was examined before the procurator and a very crowded court, to see whether he was circumcised.”

(6) Suet, Dom: 3: “At the beginning of his reign he used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly-sharpened stylus. Consequently when someone once asked whether anyone was in there with Caesar, Vibius Crispus made the witty reply: “Not even a fly.” Notably comedy is not a great strength of the Roman people.

Bad Emperors: Nero

25 Jul

Nero is an unusual emperor, who comes to power in an unusual way. First off, he is just barely a member of the Julio-Claudian family. His mother is Agrippina the Younger – sister of Caligula who had to be adopted to consolidate his claim to the principate, and his biological father is Lucius Domitus Ahenobarbus. Nero’s birth name is Marcus Domitius Ahenobarbus. Hang on! I hear my reader think, these are names we haven’t heard before, and we know by now that Roman families reuse the same three names over and over again until it’s near impossible to tell which Gaius Julius Claudius is which! And you’re right! This is the other side of the family, the marginalised side. And it takes some brave, clever and super sneaky wrangling to get him out of that, into the Claudians and leapfrogging over all the other far better qualified (in terms of birthright) candidates to get him onto the throne. None of this by Nero himself, but by his quite extraordinary mother.



We will discuss the neckbeard, I promise.

Little Nero is born at the beginning of Caligula’s reign to 22 year old Agrippina and 54 year old Lucius (try not to think about it) and daddy Lucius dropped dead two years later. Agrippina was then exiled, probably for plotting against her brother, Nero’s inheritance was seized and he was packed off to some obscure paternal aunt at the same time that Gaius had his own heir. Marginalised, semi orphaned, penniless and 2. A typically Julio-Claudian start to life. And then Gaius and his daughter are horribly murdered two years later, and quiet, unassuming uncle Claudius emerges as surprise political mastermind.(1) Claudius does the usual pardoning of all those punished under the previous regime and brings Agrippina back from exile, reuniting her with her son. Baby Nero is now 10 and his mummy has plans.




This is where Agrippina begins to get really impressive, because she manages to persuade her uncle to marry her, which involves getting him to change the incest laws so he can marry his niece (again, try not to think too hard about the realities of this next bit). Our sources – both Suetonius and Tacitus this time – describe her using her familial privilege to caress and kiss her slobbery uncle as she seduced him. You may have noticed that there’s not a lot of Nero in this discussion so far. That we’re talking an awful lot about a girl instead. That’s because our sources for Nero are obsessed with his mum. She is a more prominent character in narratives of Nero’s life and reign for the first few years than he is. She is portrayed as the wickedest of wicked women: a scheming, power hungry, hysterical, jealous, sexually manipulative, murderous (through poison, obv) slut who craved luxury and the throne. At least part of it seems to be true. Agrippina – who I am a massive fan of – does seem to have manipulated her son to the principate and tried to control him when he got there. Certainly, as we shall see, the circumstances of Nero’s ascension could not have happened organically. However, we must remember that Tacitus and all the other boys hate women, particularly powerful women who get out of line. And Agrippina most certainly does not conform to good woman tropes. Indeed, Agrippina uses her feminine attributes to get Claudius to adopt her son and add him to his will as the primary heir, effectively disinheriting his own biological son Brittanicus. And so Marcus Ahenobarbus becomes Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus at the age of 13. From penniless orphan to barely legitimate heir to the throne in 11 years. Good work Mummy Nero. And 3 years later, gross uncle/husband/stepdad/emperor Claudius drops dead, possibly as a result of a poisoned mushroom but frankly who knows, and 17 year old Nero is emperor without having to put any effort in at all.

Now Nero is still a kid, and can’t really do much, and he bloody loves his mum, so the defining narrative of his first few years as emperor is that he relied heavily on Agrippina and his tutors Seneca and Burrus as advisors. The focus of this narrative is not Nero, but the power struggles that inevitably arose between the three advisors, particularly the idea that Agrippina enormously overstepped her role as Mother of the Emperor and tried to reign as co-emperor.(2) This upset all the boys, including Seneca who is a tedious old man who wrote high minded, moralising good woman/bad woman tracts constantly, and the agitation against Agrippina began with people trying to convince Nero that his mum wanted to be emperor herself, and lots of House of Cards style political intrigue and plotting.

In amongst all this, little Nero seems frankly uninterested in any of it. He’s too busy hating his wife and having passionate affairs with a freedwoman and probably would have stayed that way if his mum hadn’t tried to take away his girlfriend. He throws a tantrum, cuts off her power, fires all her mates from their cosy positions, tells Seneca and Burrus where to go and takes control himself. A couple of years after that, Nero has his mother murdered,(3)Never mess with an 18 year old’s girlfriend. Especially if they are emperor of the world. And this is nicely indicitave of the way that Nero’s reign goes. Yeah yeah, do what you like with the empire, I’m more interested in this over here. With this over here being shagging and singing. And if you fuck about with my singing and/or shagging, I will hurt you because I can.

Nero’s approach to governing is “I want a shiny thing and you can’t stop me”, which is true. They couldn’t. The senate tried, with what is known as the Pisonian conspiracy when they worked out that Nero had taken away virtually every job that they had left and they had no real reason to have meetings anymore, but that failed and resulted in the execution of a bunch of people, including Seneca.. Nero’s shiny thing project got a really bad reputation in 64AD with the Great Fire of Rome which destroyed enormous swathes of the city. This was a fairly regular occurrence in Rome because most of the houses were made of wood, were several stories high and were very very close together. The Subura (poor bit) was a slum and so fire spread fast. But this one was especially bad. So, despite his genuine and excellent efforts to rebuild the city and institute new laws which would prevent such incidents again,(4) when Nero also built himself a big golden house and private garden and 30 foot tall golden statue of himself  in the ashes rumours spread that he had set the fire himself, literally himself. Suetonius has him sneaking out of the palace in disguise and setting fire to the city, them climbing the tower of Maecenas and singing a song about the sack of Troy while watching. Tacitus on the other hand has him on holiday in Actium so make of Suetonius’s version what you will.


Super fancy paintings from Nero's Golden House

Super fancy paintings from Nero’s Golden House

The reason that everyone liked the think of Nero playing his lute (not fiddle) while Rome burnt for five days is that Nero’s one true love in life – way more than any woman, was singing. Man he loved to sing. He practiced like a professional singer and performed in competitions in Rome and in Greece. This was considered to be excruciatingly embarrassing by upstanding Romans (like Seneca) who viewed performing as an effeminate, low class, degrading thing to do, and Nero’s insistence of singing at them at dinner parties and public events was near unbearable. Especially when he stopped letting them leave. He then started spending a lot of time in Greece, where his musical talents were received with slightly less repulsion (the Greeks being  – so the Romans thought – effeminate, low class, degraded losers who liked theatre too much), which is why he grew that preposterous neckbeard you see above. This was an open declaration of his personal allegiance to Greek mores and customs over Roman. This upset everyone too.


So with the singing, and the alleged city burning, and the taking powers away from the senate and the terrible personal temper (he is said to have kicked one of his wives to death for asking where he’s been) it’s unsurprising that he met a grim end. But in the end it was his tax policies that brought him down. Seriously. Galba – entrant in the top three least known emperors competition – began his revolt against Nero from Gaul because of his tax policies. Though it is likely that these taxes were levied in order to pay for the reconstruction of Rome and/or the giant statue of Nero in the middle, it set something off. This revolt is interesting, because it changes the pattern of the principate and ends the Julio-Claudian bloodline. It is the first revolt from the army and starts the very long running trend of army commanders becoming emperor at the point of a sword rather than via political machinations. Not that Nero was thinking this. Nero was thinking “why would anyone want to kill someone as brilliant as me?” because he wasn’t particularly smart. Once he realised that they definitely did want to kill him though, he ran for the hills with a loyal slave in the hope he could escape and, when it became clear that he wasn’t going to be allowed to live out his life as a bad singer, he committed suicide. Some of his final words were allegedly (Suetonius again) “What an artist the world is losing!” which at the very least shows you what people thought his priorities in life were. And so he dies, in a ditch, in the country, in hiding from a guy not one of you has heard of, at the age of 31, and the Julio-Claudian dynasty dies with him.


But before he died, Nero reigned for 14 years, during which he rebuilt Rome, added lots of pretty things, held many games and performances and broadly kept the people of Rome happy, defeated Parthia in a war using some damn impressive diplomacy, put down several revolts against the Romans, including Boudicca, with little bloodshed, ended the first Jewish war without burning their temple down (unlike some, I’m looking at you Vespasian) and again with limited bloodshed, and rearranged the tax system to reduce the taxation burden on the poor and raise taxes for the rich (this is what got him killed). All this is pretty good for a kid who as far as anyone can tell just wanted to be a singer, and had absolutely no interest in being emperor at all. Do you remember when we spoke about Caligula and I sad that unwillingness – or lack of overt interest in being – emperor seemed to be a defining characteristic of Bad Emperors? Nero is the epitome of this. He shows no interest in administration or the tedious details of ruling that so enthused Augustus and Vespasian and Trajan, he just wants a big gold statue and everyone to think he’s good at singing.  Sadly, life didn’t work out that way, and he ended up being 17 and king of the world. Sorry, emperor. So he killed people who didn’t say he was good at singing, or tried to intefere with his girlfrriend, or asked him why he was home so late.


Nero is hard to defend, because he was definitely an entitled douchecanoe who would get out an acoustic guitar at parties and sing at you for hours and if you tried to go to the toilet or go have a conversation in the kitchen, he’d freak out and shout at you for being rude. And he definitely killed his mother, which is not often a good thing. But he also falls into the category of “emperors who lost” and as we all know, history is written by the victors. There’s no reason for those who won  to say anything nice about Nero when they’re trying to legitimise their own coup and explain why it was necessary to start a small civil war, if you see what I’m saying here.  In an alternate universe, there is a Marcus Ahenobarbus whose mother never married Claudius, or was never adopted, and who grew up to be a terrible singer in his own time without the power of an empire behind him and Britannicus became emperor. But that is a tale for alt-history. Feel free to write it.


(1)    This is not the most common representation of Claudius today, mainly because of Robert Graves who represented him as some kind of angelic moral bright spot in a Roman hell, which is – unfortunately for you dear reader – absolute bollocks. The image of disabled uncle Claudius cowering behind a curtain, being discovered by the army and hailed as the new emperor against his will is a delightful one, and terribly good for his image but it’s also a glorious fiction. Detailed accounts of the succession of Claudius from Josephus outline a three day process of negotiation between an army camp where Claudius is hiding, and the senate house where the senate are bickering among themselves over which of them gets to be emperor next, because frankly the idea of a return to the republic is ludicrous at this stage.  Herod the younger (son of THAT Herod) acts as a negotiator and go between and eventually the senate cave and agree to let Claudius be emperor. Which almost certainly has nothing to do with the fact that he’s hanging out with the guys who have all the weapons. Dear old uncle Claudius.

(2) Agrippina is the most fascinating woman, and I will write about this another day I promise. According to tacitus she wrote a meoir of her life and family which has now – devastatingly – been lost (Tacitus, Annals 5, 53: “This incident, not mentioned by any historian, I have found in the memoirs of the younger Agrippina, the mother of the emperor Nero, who handed down to posterity the story of her life and of the misfortunes of her family.”)

(3) Allegedly he tried to do this in many dramatic and inventive ways:

Suet, Nero 34 His mother offended him by too strict surveillance and criticism of his words and acts, but at first he confined his resentment to frequent endeavours to bring upon her a burden of unpopularity by pretending that he would abdicate the throne and go off to Rhodes. Then depriving her of all her honours and of her guard of Roman and German soldiers, he even forbade her to live with him and drove her from the Palace. After that he passed all bounds in harrying her, bribing men to annoy her with lawsuits while she remained in the city, and after she had retired to the country, to pass her house by land and sea and break her rest with abuse and mockery. At last terrified by her violence and threats, he determined to have her life, and after thrice attempting it by poison and finding that she had made herself immune by antidotes, he tampered with the ceiling of her bedroom, contriving a mechanical device for loosening its panels and dropping them upon her while she slept. When this leaked out through some of those connected with the plot, he devised a collapsible boat, to destroy her by shipwreck or by the falling in of its cabin. Then he pretended a reconciliation and invited her in a most cordial letter to come to Baiae and celebrate the feast of Minerva with him. On her arrival, instructing his captains to wreck the galley in which she had come, by running into it as if by accident, he detained her at a banquet, and when she would return to Bauli, offered her his contrivance in place of the craft which had been damaged, escorting her to it in high spirits and even kissing her breasts as they parted. The rest of the night he passed sleepless in intense anxiety, awaiting the outcome of his design. On learning that everything had gone wrong and that she had escaped by swimming, driven to desperation he secretly had a dagger thrown down beside her freedman Lucius Agermus, when he joyfully brought word that she was safe and sound, and then ordered that the freedman be seized and bound, on the charge of being hired to kill the emperor; that his mother be put to death, and the pretence made that she had escaped the consequences of her detected guilt by suicide. Trustworthy authorities add still more gruesome details: that he hurried off to view the corpse, handled her limbs, criticising some and commending others, and that becoming thirsty meanwhile, he took a drink.

(4) He instituted laws about street width and tried to stop people building houses that were 5 stories tall and made of wood. People got cross about this because Rome in the summer is damn hot and wide streets means less shade. He also opened his own home to those who’d had their houses burnt down. This isn’t well remembered.

Bad Emperors: Caligula

7 Jul

People who know me usually know one thing about me: I am obsessed with the emperor Caligula. Completely and totally and all-consumingly obsessed. I have no idea how it started, but it’s been going on for over a decade now and it once drove me to nearly push an elderly woman off a ferry to Capri (she deserved it). I’ve come to terms with it. So, bear in mind how hard I will have struggled to keep this under 10,000 words.

Caligula’s was born Gaius Julius Caesar, becoming Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus upon his ascension to the throne. The name Caligula is a childhood nickname derived from the Latin world caliga which means army boot. Gaius’s father Germanicus was a much beloved Roman dude who spent the majority of his time traipsing around Germany with his army dragging his wife and kids with him. Gaius was born and raised for the first few years in the German camps and was allegedly very popular with his dad’s troops, who gave him a tiny army uniform and made him their mascot. This is where Caligula comes from: little army boot. What a great nickname. Guess where that story comes from. I really hope you guessed Suetonius. I am a terrible, awful, annoying person and so I am going to insist upon calling him Gaius because calling a grown man and emperor by his infant nickname is so unseemly. So to me he is Gaius.

Poor Gaius has an absolutely godawful childhood. He has a couple of good years in Germany, then while on a holiday in the east (in which he broke at least one massive law)(0) his Dad Germanicus dropped dead. His mum (Agrippina 1) did not deal well with the loss, and accused Uncle Tiberius of murdering her husband. She insists upon living in the slums of Rome with her kids and agitates wildly against Tibby until he gets cross and exiles her and her two older sons. All three die in exile. This leaves Gaius and his three sisters. By this time Gaius is 18 and still hasn’t received his toga virilalis, meaning he is still legally a child. Most boys get their toga virialis at 13/14 so this is a big deal. He’s not even allowed to shave yet and has to wear child’s clothing. He just has to walk around, being obviously physically an adult and yet legally a child with a beard. You cannot imagine how unbearably embarrassing this would have been. Imagine getting stuck at year 9 in school for 4 years, never being allowed to move on to do your GCSEs while class after class of 13 year olds pass you by and have finished their A-Levels by the time you’re allowed to do your SATs. Awful. Also both your parents and brothers are dead, your mum ensured that you had absolutely no connections in society on purpose and all evidence suggests that the emperor might personally want you dead. That’s Gaius at 18.

Then Tiberius calls for him to move to Capri.

There, he is swiftly and unceremoniously shaved and made an adult and made Tibby’s heir because, as we discussed, he’s Tibby’s only living relative over the age of 12, with all his mental faculties, and the principate is still too much of a full time job to let kids do it. And there he’s stuck, with boring uncle Tibby who was definitely responsible for the exile of his family and who his mum has taught him also killed his dad, who openly hates Rome and the senate, on a tiny island with nowt to do. For years. Until Tiberius dies. At which point he suddenly becomes emperor.

So. Little Gaius has had a fairly brutal upbringing. But even more importantly than that he has absolutely no experience of the Roman political system. Both Augustus and Tiberius had significant experience working their way through the various offices of the senate – not least being consul multiple times before taking the ultimate power of the principate. And here’s the second point: the principate is really a collection of little powers. It’s not one office at this time, Augustus collected an awful lot of totally constitutional, republican powers and held them all at the same time. It’s this which makes him Princeps and how he manages to subvert the republic into one man rule without anyone really noticing or minding. He hands the vast majority of these to Tiberius slowly, over many years and the senate give him most of the rest (he rejects loads) on Augustus’s death. Gaius hasn’t done this. Tibby has given him almost no powers, he’s never been to the senate. They’re gently coerced into accepting Gaius as emperor by the Praetorian Guard led by Macro, who points out very politely while holding a sword that there’s not a lot of choice in the matter. So the senate just give Gaius all the powers that Augustus had in one lump and just sort of hope really hard that this will work out for them. Because the idea of ruling by themselves is still way too much. And boom. Gaius goes from 25 year old isolated orphan, to emperor of the world.

Now Suetonius claims that, because Gaius’s dad was very, very popular and Tibby was so spectacularly unpopular, Gaius started off his reign to calls of “star”, “chicken”, “baby” and “pet”. Which is sweet. There’s a fair whack of evidence that Gaius never lost his popularity with the army or with the people of Rome but he certainly did with the senate, pretty much immediately when it becomes clear that he is wildly incompetent and has exactly zero interest in the day to day, administrative side of running an empire or indeed doing much ruling at all. This is the key difference between good emperors and bad emperors. Good emperors are keen on admin and meetings. Bad emperors are not. I would definitely be a bad emperor. On top of that, every administrative decision that Gaius does make is either totally impractical (deciding that treason is no longer a crime; ejecting all “sexual perverts” from the city) or look super weird (inexplicably adding his sisters’ names to the oath of allegiance) even though they seem to come from an idealistic place. So, when he brings back treason law, in part to exile two of his sisters who appear to be plotting against him, he looks like a liar. A liar with bad judgement. Who has started executing people again. And man do the senate hate him after that.

There’s a set of popular narratives about Gaius’s reign that he was a lovely bloke until he became ill towards the end of his first year as emperor, and as a result of the mysterious illness he went mad and became evil. (1) The illness idea comes from the structure of Suetonius’s biography, which is strange to modern eyes. It begins with his birth and ends with his death, and therefore we the reader assume that the events within are chronologically arranged, but they are not. They are arranged thematically. So, we get several chapters of “good” things at the start of the biography, and several more chapters of “bad” things afterwards, with the illness in the middle. There’s very rarely an implication of chronology in Suetonius and – enormously inconveniently – the books of Tacitus (who did write chronologically) covering Gaius’s reign have been lost to time. SO we have broadly no idea what was going on when. Moreover, the good things are all listed very quickly, a sentence each about publishing previously banned books, and fixing taxation and so on but the bad things are related in lavish detail, with imagery and quotes and so on. So the long, long list of good things gets very swiftly buried by his dancing and murdering and quips and humiliation. Such is the effect of structuring, as I regularly tell my students.

What we do know is that an awful lot of what can be verified externally in Suetonius is absolute nonsense, which casts a lot of doubt on those bits which can’t be. And even more of what you think you know about the evil Caligula is either a misreading or totally made up in the twentieth century. For example: 1. Caligula made his horse a consul. No he did not. The exact line is “It is said that he even planned to make Incitatius a consul”. Even Suetonius is hedging there. The man you think you know as Caligula – the extremely evil, sister murdering, foetus eating, mad man doing dances in a gold bikini, is a myth really, a twentieth century myth narrative device influenced strongly by I, Claudius, who has almost no relationship with the living man named Gaius.
What there evidence there is suggests that he did lead an extravagant and frivolous life and was probably a pretty rubbish emperor if you want your emperor to be taking a keen interest in the administrative workings of Syria or the strategic importance of Armenia or what Judaism is. He definitely did take an active interest in building massive, extravagant party boats (like Jay-Z) and being generally fancy. We know this, because we found his boats and they are FANCY. Look:

Ship discovered at Nemi in 1930

Ship discovered at Nemi in 1930

Also, we uniquely have a first person account of someone attempting to have a high level diplomatic chat with Gaius and how incredibly frustrating that was. This comes from a guy called Philo, an Alexandrian Jewish leader who went to visit Gaius on behalf of the Jews because he was attempting to put a statue of himself in the great Temple in Jerusalem. I am sure you can imagine why the Jews would have a problem with this. Gaius, however, seems to have no idea what their beef is. Everyone else has a statue of him, why won’t they? And he treats them like an annoyance. He keeps them waiting for days and eventually agrees to see them while he’s doing something else, specifically designing a garden. So these poor men, suffering what to them is an extreme moment of crisis and persecution, are forced to chase Gaius around as he half listens and decides where to put the hydrangeas and keeps running off mid-sentence. This drives them NUTS. And Philo writes a very nasty piece of insinuations of anti-Semitism and widespread murder. Eventually Gaius stops wanting a statue in the temple and moves on to something else. Probably more boats.

None of this is great for poor Gaius, as it all broadly manifests as what Anthony Barrett called a “totally self-centred view of the world” where it seems that the only thing that Gaius cares about is Gaius and he’ll happily trample on the senate to get it. The number of named people executed or “forced to commit suicide” under Gaius’s 4 year reign is a not insignificant 27, and this really is the kind of thing that upsets senates enormously because they begin to worry for their lives. And Gaius seems to have been a hardcore jerk about the whole thing, with – if we believe Suetonius’s quotes – quite the penchant for very dark humour. Along the lines of “if only all Rome had just one neck”, “I can do whatever I want to whoever I want” ahaha. Which makes everyone really very uncomfortable.

So, eventually, a conspiracy of senators and the Praetorian Guard (basically the army of the city of Rome/private army of the emperor) and almost certainly his much neglected Uncle Claudius decide to kill him, his wife and his daughter and make everything better. This is where it gets sticky for those who have tried to fully rehabilitate Gaius, who want to see all the bad things as lies and calumny (we’ve all been there). Because a large number of people he’s close to do agree to murder him, which is quite the step. Now, they either do this because he was genuinely awful and they hated him, or they do it simply because they want to put their own man (Claudius) in his place in order to advance their own personal power. Both are equally valid explanations, and frankly we’ll never know the answer because only evidence which supports the one explanation survives. But, for whatever reason, Gaius is murdered: they stab him to death as he’s leaving the theatre during a festival, then stab his wife and smash his 2 year old daughter’s head against a wall in order to wipe out his bloodline. They were nice dudes too.

And so, at 29 Gaius is dead, having had a truly horrible, traumatic childhood and ending up pretty much alone but for his wife – almost as alone as Tibby – and managed to upset everyone who met him so much by that they literally killed him with knives. Having been thrown into global leadership with no training, no experience and a total lack of understanding of what the job required, it’s difficult to see how this could have ended up differently. And as we will see, ending up emperor rather than plotting to be emperor is a defining feature of “bad” emperors. Nonetheless, Gaius was definitely a difficult person at the end of his reign. Despite the fact that a huge amount of the stories told about him are emphatically untrue, there is enough that is verifiable to demonstrate that he was not fun to be around and more than a little  unpredictable. Whether he deserved a brutal, bloody murder is an issue for another day (never), but him not being emperor anymore was certainly a good thing. The moral of this story is don’t make an unqualified, inexperienced 25 year old man child emperor of the world. It won’t end well. Unfortunately, it is not a lesson the Romans learnt.


0. He went to Egypt without permission. Egypt was an incredibly sensitive territory as it provided a huge proportion of Rome’s grain and so it was treated in various special ways, including the rule that no one with power could visit without express permission from the emperor in case they took control of Egypt and held Rome to ransom. Germanicus violated this. He also broke the nose off of Alexander the Great’s mummified corpse during this visit so he sounds like a fun guy.
1. As a result there’s a swathe of super funny, completely ridiculous historico-medical articles trying to diagnose Gaius’s mysterious illness based on Suetonius’s fifth hand descriptions. I don’t recommend you read it unless you have a very niche idea of funny, and that idea includes heated academic arguments about what type of epilepsy a dead man had. The other narrative is that Gaius was all cool until his sister Drusilla died. That one actually comes from Albert Camus so…let’s ignore it for the time being.
2. Suet, Caligula 54. This is a part of a chapter concerning his obsession with horse racing and particular fondness for a specific horse, which manifested as him trying to make him as comfortable as possible in ivory stalls and purple blankets. Which is profligate and extravagant but whatever.

Bad Emperors: Tiberius

25 Jun

Tiberius Claudius Nero (given name), aka Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus (emperor name), aka Poor Tibby (what I call him) was the successor of Augustus (aka The Best Roman) and ruled Rome for 23 years. Twenty three miserable years.




Poor Tibby, as with every other aristocrat of his and his parents’ generations, lived an exciting life, none more exciting that when his mother – the 19 year old Livia – while heavily pregnant with his younger brother, suddenly divorced his dad and married Octavian taking 3 year old Tiberius with her. Tibby’s dad’s (also called Tiberius. Let’s not get into the Roman names thing again) gentle acquiescence to this kid stealing his wife and sons (apparently he gave her away) is the absolute best evidence we have for how hardcore scary Octavian must have been.  And thus began a life of relentless misery for Tibby, as his every moment of happiness is crushed by his new stepdad. Forever.


Most of what we know about poor Tibby (no I will not stop calling him that) comes from Tacitus, a deeply grumpy man who would have been no fun at all at parties and who wrote a chronicle of Rome focusing very heavily on how much he really really really hated Tibby. I’m not exaggerating. He loathed him. Which is weird, given that Tacitus lived almost a century after Tiberius died and he had no direct experience of him. There’s a bunch of theories as to why Tacitus so particularly loathed Tibby, please see your closest undergraduate or see this footnote (1). Nonetheless, even in Tacitus’s deeply unkind account and Suetonius’s deeply suspicious one it seems pretty clear that the last thing Tiberius ever wanted was to be emperor. And the last thing that Augustus ever wanted was to make Tibby emperor. Unfortunately, literally everyone else that Augustus attempted to make his primary heir dropped dead leaving only Tiberius standing.


This has led to the widespread belief that his mum, Livia, waged a campaign of poisoning and murdering to eliminate everyone who stood in the way of Tibby’s entirely unwelcome ascension. This rumour was started by Tacitus, who hated her too. Because she was a woman, and the only thing Tacitus hated more than Tibby was women.(2) That’s a lie. He hates Tiberius way more. Did she kill several members of her husband’s family in order to manoeuvre her own son into position for her own gain? Who knows? Probably not. Plus Tacitus also accuses Livia of killing Augustus – an 80 year old man – in order to get Tibby to the throne, so I reckon he had no idea what he was talking about.


So poor Tibby. He doesn’t want the job, no-one wants to give him the job, he tries to get away from Rome and move to Greece and when he comes back he’s forced to divorce the woman he loves (Vipsania) and marry a woman he loathes and who loathes him (Augustus’s biological daughter with his second wife) until she gets exiled for basically being too slutty for Rome. Then he’s just all by himself, sadly following his first wife around parties and crying and probably hoping that he dies before Augustus does. He doesn’t. Possibly because of his mum (probably not).


Augustus finally drops dead, and Tiberius takes on all the remaining powers of the principate (3). And this is where things start to go really wrong for his reputation. First off, it seems that he tried quite hard to force the senate to do their damn job and start governing, which they weren’t keen to do at all. After decades of civil wars, dictators, despots and Augustus with his velvet fist, the rank and file senators were terrified of taking any kind of responsibility and essentially refused to. “I don’t WANT to be in charge”, Tiberius said. “Tough titties, you are”, the senate replied. “Take these ridiculous honours back!” Tiberius protested “Shan’t” replied the senate. “Vote on this thing”, Tiberius would say, “how do you want us to vote?” the senate would reply. Tiberious rejected a collection of the highest honours in an attempt to not be emperor, none of which worked. Until one day, Tiberius lost his temper, called them men fit to be slaves and stormed out. This made the senate cross, and the senate writes the histories.


Secondly, he wasn’t an elegant man. He’s described as too tall, ungainly, gawky and shuffly. This leads to several embarrassing incidents, like falling over in public a lot. Falling over makes you a twat in Rome, especially falling over your toga in embarrassment when some random senator is trying to prostrate himself at your feet. Twat. Thirdly, he wasn’t keen on public games, either gladiatorial or racing, didn’t put many on himself and rarely attended. This is a MAJOR faux pas where games are fantastically important as a political tool. The modern equivalent is if the prime minister were responsible for funding half the weekly episodes of Eastenders and then one of them just couldn’t be bothered so there was only one episode every two weeks. This is the kind of thing that gets people suddenly very interested in politics.


Finally, Tiberius made the worst possible decision: he left Rome. For good. This blew people away. They couldn’t IMAGINE why anyone wouldn’t want to live in Rome, especially not a ruler. They were a lot like Londoners in that respect. Tiberius moved to Capri, a teeny tiny, barely accessible island off the Amalfi coast and stopped talking to anyone because he hated them all and they hated him. This gave rise to two big problems for him (if he cared). First, it allowed nefarious folk with designs on his power to place themselves as intermediaries between a disinterested Princeps and a cowed, pathetic senate. Nefarious folk like Sejanus, who appears to have tried to set himself up as a Princeps Regent, bump off Tiberius’s only son and marry his daughter-in-law in order to become Tibby’s heir. All of this reflects badly on Tiberius who is alternately seen as approving of Sejanus’s naughtiness, or being a rubbish, uninterested leader who lets things like this happen. Even worse, when Sejanus’s plot is revealed to Tiberius, he cleans house by having Sejanus and everyone associated with him put  to death for treason. This goes down VERY BADLY with the senate who generally think that other senators being put to death is VERY BAD. And so Tiberius also gathers a reputation for being a bloodthirsty, maniacal bastard who killed everyone he set his eyes on. Calmer estimates note that the death toll under Tiberius was very small, approximately fifty people over the whole reign. Much smaller that Augustus’s massive pogrom as a triumvir. But still. Reputation.


More importantly, however, Tibby has isolated himself on an inaccessible island from a rich, underworked populace who like to gossip. And MAN do they gossip. It is swiftly decided back in Rome, based on no evidence at all, that Tiberius is running a sex island where he engages in pederasty, fellatio (considered to be unbearably filthy in Roman culture) and various other things which were considered so rude up to the mid-twentieth century that they were never translated into English. Please see this footnote for a full translation.(4) All this survives to us in Suetonius’s bizarre biography of Tibby in which he maintains the classically Roman line or argument that the fact that Tibby had shown no weird sexual desires up to the point of his self-imposed exile was merely evidence that he was very good at hiding his weird sexual desires until he could have a sex island.


On top of the sex island, Tiberius is supposed to have also suddenly become terribly cruel, again for no good reason other than no-one knew what he was doing there and this is a better story than “reading”. So he spends all his time having people flung off cliffs for tiny slights, and grated with giant fish(5) for the fun of it. In between doing unspeakable things to the babies he gets from somewhere. It doesn’t help that Tiberius takes a sort-of-forced interest in his nephew Caligula, moves him to Capri and adopts him. This is because Caligula is one of the only two remaining male members of the Julio-Claudian line at the time, the other one is 12 and Tibby getting old and thinking of heirs. Caligula, as we’ll get to, has a very, very bad reputation and so Tiberius gets a lot of flak for making him his heir, despite his very limited choices.


This is partly because both contemporary and later senators totally believed that Tiberius had the means and the opportunity to dismantle the principate and restore the republic, despite the decades of evidence that the republic was long dead and the even clearer evidence that they were now fundamentally incapable of ruling by themselves. They explain that last one away by accusing Tibby of just pretending to be allowing them to try and make decisions by themselves (Tibby is the king of pretending in the imaginations of senators), and just decide to completely ignore all the wars and that. Because blaming Tiberius is easier, cleaner and he’s off in Capri being a sex person and can’t defend himself.


And so, after a decade of being generally bored and made uncomfortable by Rome, followed by another ten years of people bitching about him  and only reappearing to fix the odd crisis (mainly by exiling or executing people), Tiberius dies at the age of 77 and is mourned by absolutely no-one. His son is dead, both his wives are dead, his entire family is dead. The senate and Caligula don’t bother to have him voted any posthumous honours and refuse to deify him as they had Augustus and JC and there is apparently widespread jubilation about Caligula’s ascension. Poor Tibby is disposed of and everyone tries very hard to forget him.


So what have we learnt from Tiberius? First off, not wanting to be emperor is sometimes not an impediment to becoming emperor. Secondly, it doesn’t matter how well you hold borders, build nice things, maintain peace and prosperity and do generally competent empire ruling if you piss off the wrong people. None of it matters if you don’t play the senatorial games in the way the senate insist you play. Because the senate are responsible for your legacy and the senate will fuck you.


And that’s why he’s poor Tibby. Morose, miserable Tibby, alone on his (sex) island with nothing and no-one, after a lifetime of being shuffled about like a chess piece by his step-dad, had even his legacy trampled by politics.






(1) Theory 1. Tacitus thought that Tiberius had the opportunity to dismantle Augustus’s principate upon his accession and restore the republic, and was very cross that he didn’t. Theory 2. Tacitus believed that Domitian (the emperor under whom he worked and completely loathed) had a copy of Tiberius’s diary and used them as a template for being evil. It’s probably the former.


(2) Actually, there’s a decent argument to be made that Tacitus attacks Livia as a proxy for attacking Augustus, because attacking Augustus is literally unthinkable. However, he does hate women.


(3) The Principate is the official name for the position of emperor at this time, because the idea of emperor doesn’t quite exist in the way we think it does yet. Principate comes from princeps, meaning First Citizen or Best Citizen, which is one of the names that Augustus took for himself while he was persuading everyone that he was a kitten really.


(4) “Suetonius, Tiberius 43 “On retiring to Capri he devised a pleasance for his secret orgies: teams of wantons of both sexes, selected as experts in deviant intercourse and dubbed analists, copulated before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions. Its bedrooms were furnished with the most salacious paintings and sculptures, as well as with an erotic library, in case a performer should need an illustration of what was required. Then in Capri’s woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this “the old goat’s garden,” punning on the island’s name.

44  He acquired a reputation for still grosser depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe. For example, he trained little boys (whom he termed tiddlers) to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibbles; and unweaned babies he would put to his organ as though to the breast, being by both nature and age rather fond of this form of satisfaction. Left a painting of Parrhasius’s depicting Atalanta pleasuring Meleager with her lips on condition that if the theme displeased him he was to have a million sesterces instead, he chose to keep it and actually hung it in his bedroom. The story is also told that once at a sacrifice, attracted by the acolyte’s beauty, he lost control of himself and, hardly waiting for the ceremony to end, rushed him off and debauched him and his brother, the flute-player, too; and subsequently, when they complained of the assault, he had their legs broken.” For the full life see here.


(5) Not a joke. Suetonius, Tiberius: 60 “A few days after he reached Capri and was by himself, a fisherman appeared unexpectedly and offered him a huge mullet; whereupon in his alarm that the man had clambered up to him from the back of the island over rough and pathless rocks, he had the poor fellow’s face scrubbed with the fish. And because in the midst of his torture the man thanked his stars that he had not given the emperor an enormous crab that he had caught, Tiberius had his face torn with the crab also.”

On Vomitoria and Decadence

13 Jun

Did they actually have vomitoriums (vomitoria?)  in their homes or was my Latin teacher just taking the piss?



In their homes, Cameron, No. That would be bizarre. But in their amphitheatres, absolutely yes! Here is a picture of one:


Now, being the big old smartypants that I am, I have a strong suspicion that this is a highly disappointing picture. This is clearly a passage, and not a place where people would gather to puke for fun. Especially not the Romans, who as we know preferred to do things indoors surrounded by pictures of dicks. Note the lack of dicks in this picture.

I’m sorry dear readers, but a vomitorium is not a place where Romans went to throw up during meals so that they could eat more. It’s a passageway into/out of an amphitheatre so named because people spew out of it (broadly). It basically means EXIT. On top of that terrible news, the term only appears in the Late Fourth Century in Macrobius and hardly anyone has read Macrobius even though he’s quite interesting. Cicero wouldn’t have even heard of such a thing. The idea of the puking room was made up in 1961, around the time that everyone stopped thinking that the Romans were great civilizing force for good (because the Nazis ruined imperialism for everyone) and started thinking that they were just a bag of vile, gay, evil weirdos.


So why does everyone now think that Romans are decadent monsters? What happened to the civilizing geniuses in white togas idea? The answer is threefold. Because nothing is ever simple in history.


1. Morality Tales

The Romans were a didactic, pompous lot. They were almost the best ever at being incredibly judgy and gossipy about each other all the time. Even better, they were a rich and literate society where most of the gossips were rich in both money, time and motivation to write down all their moralising stories about each other and then publish them widely. One of the best sources for terrible tales of debauchery told to horrify and titilate a Roman audience is Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, a set of biographies of the first twelve Caesars of Rome –  from our friend JC to Domitian – told in thematic rather than chronological order. Just about every crazy, hilarious thing you’ve ever heard about an emperor came from Suetonius or a misunderstanding of Suetonius. Caligula made his horse a consuls? Misunderstanding of Suetonius. Tiberius and his sex grotto? Suetonius. Julius Caesar and the pirates? Suetonius. Nero fucking his mum? Suetonius. Caligula fucking his sister? Suetonius. All of it from one guy. Whose other best seller was called Lives of Famous Whore (now sadly lost).


Here’s the problem: Suetonius had no desire to actually tell the truth about anything and is widely known among students as the Heat magazine of the Roman world. The whole point of Roman biography isn’t to tell the capital T Truth  – that positivist, scientific, very modern, imaginary thing – about anyone, but to give the reader an impression of the general idea of a person. And if that means that sometimes a few incidents get invented, or inflated, or obvious gossip gets reported then that’s not a problem. By reporting senatorial gossip and rumour, Suetonius is saying “everyone hated him so much that they said stuff like this about him.” Everyone thought Tiberius was such a tosspot that they said he was a pederast. Everyone though Caligula was such a twat, they said he fucked his sister. What they’re NOT saying is sisterfucking, pederasty and giant golden statues of yourself are totally cool behaviour in Rome. They’re saying the exact opposite: we hate this guy so let’s say the worst thing we can think of about him, accuse him the most unacceptable, anti-Roman behaviour.

And this is all fine as long as your work is only being read by Romans who get this context, who understand that the point of the story about Nero and his mum is to make one gasp and mutter about good Roman values.

Sadly, it isn’t and these survived while perhaps more sober histories did not. And they survived for the second reason.


2. The Christians.

The early Christian, for reasons mainly centering on the fact that the Romans kept trying to kill them, were not fans of the Romans. And early Christian theology is very, very heavily focused on ideas of suffering, renunciation and asceticism and does not look kindly on things like giant global empires full of rich people who do art, spend 8 hours a day on their hair and own 5 houses. Early Christian theology, if you remember your gospels, are enormous fans of giving up all your possessions and cash as well as sex, food and fun in order to prepare appropriately for the second coming of Christ (happening any minute in the first 250 years of Christianity). Therefore, anything they can get their hands on that suggests that the pagan Romans likes things other than mortal suffering were pretty good for demonstrating how evil (in the Christian sense) the Romans were and how great Christianity was in comparison. Especially if they talk about sex.

Then the Christians win, surprising even themselves, and they have to come up with a reason why imperial Roman power in the West collapsed so easily in the face of (to the Romans) 9 pathetic men in furry trousers who couldn’t read Greek. Their answer of course was that the pagan Western Romans were a bunch of filthy, depraved, over-paid, under-worked sex maniacs who were punished by God for all this with the loss of the empire. Western Christian writers of this period were particularly fond of pointing out the unshakable and imaginary moral goodness of the Vandals in comparison. And look! There’s all this evidence that the Romans were gross in books like Suetonius! Urgh, Romans. Yay Christians.


And so, throughout the middle ages, because it’s relatively poor and there are no lazy aristocratic classes to do art, literature exists only in the church and only ancient texts that support Church ideas tend to survive. Like Suetonius, who proved that the Romans were awful. And so it goes for a millennium or so, until the Renaissance happens (by magic I assume), Europe rises from the ashes via some process or another and start banging around all over the world oppressing and genociding everyone they come across and starting wars with each other. Which brings us to the last reason.


3. The Twentieth Century

WW2 has two major effects on the Romans: first the Nazis explicit association of themselves as the inheritors of Rome, adoption of the Roman salute and desire to build a new Roman empire squicks everyone out about the Romans; second the aftermath inadvertently kickstarts the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s onwards. This means that no one wants to be nice about Romans, and new sexual morals mean that all the filthy stuff can finally be translated. On top of the the Americans start getting really pushy and meddle-y about global affairs while having a senate and an eagle and all kinds of Roman paraphernalia in their iconography. That makes everyone start talking about New Romes again, in a bad way. Rome is once more associated with richness and decadence and immorality and imperialism.

Plus, the western world is still crazy rich and being crazy rich makes everyone feel bad. This means that we can all look back to the moralising tales of decadence of the Roman empire which have conveniently survived and see ourselves in them. “Ohh” we can sigh, while watching My Super Sweet Sixteen in our big centrally heated houses “it’s like the last days of Rome” and we can all feel better about ourselves. Which – conveniently – is exactly what the Romans wrote all this stuff down for in the first place. Because everybody thinks they’re a Suetonius, and no one wants to be a Nero. Except those kids on My Super Sweet Sixteen, who are awful.

In this climate, the idea that the Romans were as godawful as we think other people in our own society are (Germans, Americans, teenagers, not us) is terribly attractive and its just a little step from there to start openly making stuff up about how awful they were, like vomitoria. Just watch Caligula for further examples.


So there. Why do we think the Romans had vomitoria? Because they were moralising gossips, because the Christians thought they were bastards and because the events of the twentieth/twenty-first centuries have fertilised the ground for hating them. Easy. Now none of this should convince you that some Romans weren’t astonishly decadent, big haired horror shows with too much money and not enough taste, merely that the Roman world was not the grab bag of normalised, horrifying, physical and sexual degradation that vomitoria suggests. They were much weirder than that.







On Being a Good Roman Woman

20 Feb

At a conservative estimate, there are 8 million books published about Roman women every month. I know this because I own most of them. Most talk about the same four issues on repeat, or are wrong. But I’m not here to tell you what historians think about the fanny­havers of the capital (you can find that out yourself, or I’ll do it another day); I’m here to tell you about what the Romans thought of the females. Which means, of course, what Roman men thought of  Roman women.Today we’re going to talk about the five women Roman men loved the best, the women who epitomised femininity and vaginal virtue and womanly excellence to the minds of Roman dudes, and who were presented as ideals and models of behaviour and attitude. One thing we’re quickly going to notice about the very best Roman women is that they all look suspiciously fictional. Another is that none of them have any personality at all. And naturally, because this is the Romans, their excellence is all super disturbing.

 5. Turia

Not Turia

Not Turia

Turia is the star of the Laudatio Turiae, a first century BC epitaph found in Rome. At least we assume her name is Turia; her name is missing. Only the optimistic hope that both the epitaph and the Valerius Maximus are totally telling the truth have led to the identification of this – the most perfect woman to ever die – as Turia, wife of Quitus Lucretius Vespillo (which is a bloody great name).


Her husband was exiled for many years as a result of Augustus’ rise to power, and so Turia spent much of her adult life alone in Rome.  Here is an incomplete list of Turia’s good deeds according to her husband: not staying at home alone (bad for the reputation); a good dress sense; religiosity of the correct and non superstitious kind; wool-working; being good at advice; being good with money. She also physically defended her husband’s home when his enemies tried to burn it down and argued in front of Augustus twice, to save her husband’s life and end his exile respectively.


This is the best bit though: Turia and her husband were infertile (it was, naturally, assumed that this was the woman’s fault) so she offered to divorce him so he could marry someone else, then have children with this other woman, then divorce her, and then remarry Turia so they could raise the kids together as her own. You see in Roman law, children belong to their fathers and the mother has no legal claim. Entire paragraphs of her epitaph are dedicated to this offer. How generous of her! To steal another woman’s children! That angel! The kindness! The horror.

4. Sabine Women

This is a collection of ladies rather than just the one, but together they epitomise the main use and virtue of a vagina in Roman culture: helping men be friends.  Here’s the deal: at the founding of Rome there was a desperate shortage of women, and the neighbouring Sabines wouldn’t let their women marry Romans. So the Romans did the only reasonable thing: they decided to kidnap a collection of Sabine ladies and forcibly marry them. We’d all totally do the same, I’m sure. According to Livy there was definitely, definitely no raping, and the Sabine ladies were all delighted to be abducted because the Romans were so great. Just so that’s clear. Definitely no rape. Ok? Good.


The Sabine dudes, however, were super pissed off and tried to get their women back through the manly, manly means of war. Grrrr. Led by Titus Tatius, which is another brilliant name. So the Sabine men and the Roman men are being manly and bleeding everywhere, until the Sabine women intervene by standing between the warring dudes and declared that they themselves should be murdered for causing all the deaths of their husbands and fathers. This is – as I’m sure you’ll agree, especially if you identify as male – the kind of infallible logic no man can reject. And indeed the Romans and Sabines couldn’t., and so that was the end of the war, and the Roman and Sabine men ruled Rome together in peace for a whole five years. And what do we learn from this tale of kidnap, war and victim blaming? Women are well good at bringing men together, let’s do political marriages.

3. Octavia Minor

This of course brings us to Octavia, who was one half of a very famous political marriage. This Octavia is known as Octavia Minor (the Younger) in order to differentiate her in scholarship from her sister Octavia. She had four daughters. They were called Claudia, Claudia, Antonia and Antonia. Sometimes the Roman lack of imagination with regards to naming is overwhelming.


Anyway, little Octavia is Augustus’s sister (not his real name, of course. His real name was Octavian. Of course) and is a central part of Augustus’s attempts to conquer the world by any means necessary. First, as a 29 year old widowed mother of three(!!!) she was married off to Mark Antony by her brother in order to provide a familial link between the two men, just like the Sabines. She was a good lady, so she spent the next few years following Antony around to the various miserable provinces he visited. As Romans viewed leaving Rome in much the same way that Londoners view the idea of moving to Bradford, but even worse, this was a big deal. Antony, however, was terribly ungrateful and disappeared off to Egypt to drink melted pearls, wear eyeliner and knob Cleopatra.


For 8 years, Octavia raised her three children by her first husband, her two children by Antony, and Antony’s two kids by one of his other wives, while trying to persuade her brother that her husband wasn’t that bad and advocating on his behalf. In gratitude for her efforts, Antony divorced her. Then killed himself. However, Octavia was the most patient woman who ever lived, and so she took in his children by Cleopatra and raised them.Then she died. And was given an enormous public funeral, and got a gate and a portico built in her name and a collection of coins with her face on them. And coins are the highest honour a lady can get, especially if she’s the perfect, obedient and loyal sister, wife and mother of famous men.

2. Cornelia

By now you should be noticing a trend: women who are good according to the Romans are only good when they’re useful to men in some way. Cornelia Africana adds a new dimension to that trend as she manages to be useful to both the men in her life – her sons – and the state of Rome. She was the daughter of Scipio Africanus, aka the man who destroyed Carthage and salted the earth, which was already a good way to be famous; a bit like being a royal baby. By the time she died, she was near deified in Rome for her many virtues, and a big statue of her was put up in the Forum.


It’s claimed by Plutarch that she had 12 children, which honestly is a bit suspect – not least because Plutarch was writing several hundred years after her death. But she definitely had three and two of them – the sons of course – decided that they’d like to cause a bit of a political crisis by attempting to reform agrarian law (no one said it was a sexy political crisis) and were both brutally murdered by mobs who opposed them. Cornelia played a very prominent role in their lives, acting as an advisor, a confident and an ally. She was renowned for her education, her beauty, and her choice to not remarry but to dedicate herself to her sons after her widowhood, even though a king definitely tried to marry her because she was so brilliant and beautiful and brilliant.


Most importantly she is remembered for the fact that when a friend asked her why she didn’t wear jewellery, she gestured to her sons and replied “these are my jewels.” Which, if we’re honest about it, is a total dick move. How is her friend supposed to respond to that? It feels like Cornelia would have been right at home at a middle class mums groups in North London, shaming women who work or don’t breastfeed or let their children eat sweets or whatever for not being as good as she is. She’s basically Gwyneth Paltrow, but worse. For all her perfect virtue and excellent motherliness, you definitely wouldn’t want to hang out with her.

1. Lucretia

Talking of women you wouldn’t want to be friends with, we come to poor old Lucretia: star of many a tragic play, worryingly important in European art and, unbearably depressingly, the epitome of Roman female goodness.


Here’s what happened to Lucretia: her husband Brutus was out with his mates – including the prince of Rome (it was a monarchy), Sextus Tarquinius  – having a laugh and a bit of bants and that, which culminated in an argument about whose wife was the most virtuous. As men do. So they decided to check up on their wives to settle the argument, and rode around town peeping on their ladies, who were all being unwomanly in some way. All except Lucretia who, in her husband’s absence, was weaving him some clothes. Awww. So Lucretia won!


Unfortunately, her virtue is irresistibly arousing to the prince, who returns, breaks into her bedroom and rapes her. Because a virtuous lady is like catnip to depraved tyrants, as we all know from all fiction ever.


Rapes have consequences though, and the next day Lucretia summoned her husband and father, told them what happened and then – in quite a surprising twist – stabbed herself to death in front of them while declaring that she must die, because she has committed adultery. Yes dear Reader, the height of excellence for a Roman lady was to kill yourself instead of bringing shame on the honour of your husband and father by getting yourself raped. And the Romans were the civilised ones, apparently. Her hubby and dad took this quite badly, dragging her poor body out into the streets and using her as an excuse to start a revolution that overthrew the king (named Tarquin Superbus – I saved the best name for the end) and instituted the republic. Lucretia’s poor body was displayed in the forum the whole time, as apparently she hadn’t suffered enough indignity. Thus, Lucretia is Rome’s martyr because she restored her own honour by dying bloodily all over her dad.


And with that, I think we can all be very grateful that we’re not Roman.

What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?

4 Feb

This is a question that was asked by just about everyone I have ever spoken to about Romans, because everyone thinks they’re hilarious. You know when you’re working in retail and you’ve served maybe 8000 people and asked each one if they’d like a bag and you’ve gone into autopilot thinking about taking up smoking for the extra breaks and then something won’t scan properly and you’re waving it about and the the jolly customer says “does that mean it’s free?!!” with a big grin and they’re the 7,999th person to say it that day and you smile far too hard and grind your teeth? This question is a bit like that. Except it happens more at parties and I’m never getting paid to answer it. But it’s all cool, because I love talking about the Romans, and Monty Python.

For the young, the ignorant and the forgetful, this question of course refers to the Monty Python film The Life of Brian and this exchange:

This skit ends listing the benefits of the Roman presence in Judea as follows:  the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, public health, and peace. All perfectly reasonable answers and all true to a certain extent. It’s also an old fashioned, somewhat colonialist 19th century viewpoint that depicts the Romans as a homogenising, civilising force bringing technology and advancement and nice things to the savages, which is obviously a little “problematic” to say the least. But that’s Monty Python’s list, and I am a willful contrarian and I like to make things difficult for myself (also super fun at parties), so today I am going to do my own list and I am going to be answering it from a different angle; not what did the Romans do for first century Judea, but what did they do for the twenty-first century west .

1. Latin

Those of you who went to decent schools, where kids probably didn’t get stabbed, likely did Latin at some point. This means you’ll know two things: first that Caecilius is in the garden, and secondly that Latin is a dead language that killed the Romans(1). But think about this for more than 10 seconds, and you’ll realise that Latin is very much alive today, just not the Latin you learnt in school. Latin is the foundation of all Romance languages, French, Spanish, Italian Portuguese, Romanian and a bunch of languages you’ve never heard of like Aragonese.(2) Which means that Latin vocab and certain aspects of grammar remain fundamental to western languages, and in a post-colonial world, huge amounts of Africa and all of America. Even in English, a Germanic language, Latin is important. Not only because of the strong French influence but also in formal language. As a result of classical renaissance, Latin is the language of law, medicine, science and academia. You’ve certainly written etc., et al.,n.b.,. and so on.(3) Broken your tibula? Fallen on your gluteus maximus? Picked any lavendula? Worked pro bono? Or devised an ad hoc solution? Had a long pub discussion about superhero alter egos? Latin is in your life, your life is steeped in Latin and you don’t even slightly appreciate it. Ungrateful.

2. The Arch

When I was 17 I went on a college trip to Greece, including a visit to the ancient site of Olympia, where I got into my first stand up row with a moron about the ancient world.(4) It concerned The Arch, which I had been taught by my wonderful Ancient History A-Level teacher Gill Partington to pronounce with capital letters. Because The Arch is important. At the site of ancient Olympia, there stands two or three almost complete buildings and a covered walkway leading from the temple to the Olympic stadium. Each of these involves arches: an arched window, a doorway, an arched covering. As we – being 10 passionate, mouthy 17 year olds – walked towards the stadium we encountered a group of tourists. “Look” shouted one “look at the beautiful Greek arch!” “No no!” we interjected, drunk on history and teenage arrogance, “the Romans invented the unsupported arch. The Greeks never had the architectural ability! This is all Roman, built by Hadrian! Isn’t that fascinating?” The tourists, sober, American, oddly unhappy about being corrected by English children, all of whom were suspiciously gothy, violently disagreed until we were politely separated by Gill. The Arch is everywhere in Roman architecture, and as a result is everywhere in western architecture. As is concrete, which the Romans also invented. And the unsupported dome, represented in religious architecture the world over. And where there’s not an arch, there’s a flying buttress, which the Romans also invented. Because the Romans were excellent at architecture, maths (even without having a zero) and building cool stuff.

3. Representative Democracy

Oh yeah, it’s getting hot now. I know there’s nothing internet kids enjoy more than discussion of the ancient roots of different forms of political structures. I’m with it. And so are you. Greeks invented democracy, everyone knows this, they’ve built an entire tourism industry on that fact. But Athenian democracy was direct, which meant that for every single issue every eligible citizen (men. Only some men) who wanted to have a say had to traipse up an enormous hill to debate and vote. Which is tedious, time consuming, exhausting and quite annoying. Russell Brand can’t even be bothered to put a cross in a box once every four years, and I avoid Question Time because it’s stressful, so I’m sure you can imagine how difficult getting people to climb a mountain every couple of weeks was.

So when the Romans kicked out their kings and instituted democracy, they decided to do it better -like they did everything. They developed a form of democracy that would work for enormous groups of people, which would be less time consuming and more likely to get people involved but still allow every man a voice. They invented the idea of voting for someone else to represent your views in the actual process of governing. They did this by developing a series of offices, each with very specific roles and responsibilities, lead by two consuls, and each officer was appointed by public vote. After the term of office, consuls could be prosecuted if they were deemed to have been corrupt. This system, which worked in its ideal form for about 2 hours before the political class emerged and corrupted it, forms the basis for all representative democracy today. Particularly, it ideologically underpins American government as the founding father borrowed not only the names of institutions but the ideas of limiting the power of each office and institution to prevent the outbreak of tyranny. That’s going well too.

4. Christianity

I’ve talked previously about the enormous size and reach of the Roman empire. And earlier we noted that one of the major benefits of being a part of the empire was long lasting peace. These two attributes, plus a general wealth of the empire, allowed people to travel much more extensively than they otherwise could have, and thus allowed ideas to spread around the Roman world very fast. And for the modern world, the most significant of these ideas was Christianity. It was the Roman desire for conquest which allowed the conditions for Christianity to spread and grow. It was the empire wide persecution of Christians which really raised its profile as a movement. And it was the imperial adoption of Christianity which gave it the final push into full legitimacy. Interestingly, it was also the fall of imperial power in the west which allowed the church to gain the power and influence it enjoyed in the medieval world. It is because of the spread and influence of the Romans that Christianity, which now underpins western philosophy, morality and often law. One of the reasons we have Sunday Opening hours is because of the influence of Christian morality today. In the US, abortion debates which were hammered out in the Roman empire are being applied daily by powerful Christian Right. Without the Roman empire, the structures, peace and leisure that it provided, the church would have had a much harder time becoming the dominant moral and legal force in the western world for almost two millennia. And whatever your religious flavour, however you feel about Christianity or organised religion or whatevs, you have to be impressed by that.

5. Law

Roman law particularly the sixth century codification in the Justinian Code, enshrined the separation between private law like divorces, and public law like murders. I have no jokes about this. Because it’s boring. Please see your local law professor for more. Though they wont have any jokes either.

6. Pithy Quotes

Finally, the Romans gave us all the pithy quotes a civilisation could desire. The kind of pithy quotes which get reused by people who don’t even know who they’re quoting. How many know that when they paint “who watches the watchmen?” wonkily on New York walls that they are quoting noted first century satirist and renowned misogynist and xenophobe Juvenal? I suspect many think that Alan Moore came up with this all by himself. How many more know that the horribly misused line about bread and circuses is also from Juvenal? The Romans also gave us “the die is cast” to be used ominously by ponces, and “Where there’s life, there’s hope” to be sighed in desperate times. The Romans gave us the last line of the only war poem you remember from school “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.” Latin literature, and the morals and sentiments which they express, remain powerful in western culture, in our books and in out everyday speech. They also gave us the works of Catullus, who offers the best life advice I can offer (and a series of distressing poems about facefucking) “Let us live and love, nor give a damn what sour old men say/The sun that sets may rise again, but when our light has sunk into the earth it is gone forever.”

1. Latin is a language/as dead as dead can be/first it killed the Romans/and now it’s killing me.

2. Spoken in Aragon, Spain. Also such fictional sounding languages as Extremaduran, Mirandese, Mozarabic, Norman, Picard and Romansch. The world is so much stranger than you think.

3. Meaning et cetera (and the rest); et alii (and the others); note bene (note well)

4. If you ever meet me or @flossieraptor, ask about our British Museum row that ended in us being on the receiving end of a series of anti-semetic slurs. It’s quite the tale.

On Constantine, Christianity and Flags

6 Jan

A while ago I briefly joined OKCupid, because I was unhappily single and 30 and I don’t want to die alone. It didn’t last because the best thing about OKCupid is that it makes dying alone seem like a very attractive option in comparison to the string of misogynists, goobers and bibbles that will depress and insult you. Plus, I’m a belligerent and grumpy woman, so I endeavoured to make my profile as representative of that as possible, particularly by emphasising that I’m wildly overeducated, very impatient and talk about Romans too much.

What this lead to was lots of people messaging me to ask me questions about Romans, and rubbishers trying to impress me with their excellent knowledge about things they were wrong about. Easily in my top three of these was the woman (yes, I thought that too) who messaged me with a long, ill-informed paragraph about Christianity causing the end of the Roman empire (I assume she is a fan of Edward Gibbon) and ended with the question, reproduced here as I received it: “And did Christinaity become popular because of the mastif flag taken into battle ….. ?” (sic)

 I am a grown up, so I will not question the typo on Christianity. “Mastif flag” however is some made up bollocks. What the cock this person thinks a “mastif flag” is I do not know. I even tried to Google it in case it was something I didn’t know about somehow. You know what happens when you Google “mastif flag”? It autocorrects to “mastiff” and shows you dog merchandise. Turns out you can buy a lot of flags with pictures of English Mastiffs on them. Make of that what you will. I ASSUME – because this woman required many assumptions – that she was talking about the Labarum flag that Constantine allegedly carried into battle at Milvian Bridge in 312AD. So that’s what I’m going to talk about for the next 1000 words or so.


Here’s what OKCupid lady was probably talking about: Constantine was engaged in a very long running civil war between many men claiming to be emperor. At one point the empire has at least 6 people claiming to be an Augustus. Eventually Constantine wins, and one of most decisive and important battles is at Milvian Bridge, (over the TIber) where he crushes Maxentius. Two Christian chroniclers of the wars claimed that this battle marked the beginning of Constantine’s deeply contentious conversion to Christianity, and a sort of composite of these accounts is what makes up the modern idea that Constantine saw a vision a Chi-Rho(1) in the sky before the battle, decided Christ was on his side, put the Chi-Rho on his flags as he went into battle and, as a result, won.

 Obviously, this is deeply suspicious. For one, Latantius and Eusebius’s accounts of the incident don’t agree at all. Secondly, Eusebius’s two versions of the event have virtually nothing in common, he doesn’t even mention the flag in the first one. Thirdly, Lactantius later claims that Licinius (another of the emperors involved in the civil wars) was tormented by God with various grotesque diseases until he went mad and bashed his own head against a wall until his eyes fell out. Which definitely didn’t happen, so I think we can all agree that Lactantius’s apologetic work On How the Persecutors Died is perhaps not the most reliable of historical sources.(2) 

The differences between the accounts of Lactantius and Eusebius are also pretty damn significant. In Lactantius’s – which is the earlier source – Constantine has a dream from God telling him to put a staurogram(3) on his soldier’s shields. In Eusebius’s second account, Constantine looks into the sun while marching and sees a glowing cross with the words “In this sign, conquer”. Constantine, being a bluff military man, is confused by this sign and only then does he receive a dream clarifying that he should display the labarum(4) as a flag in order to win the upcoming battle. These are differences that matter to me. If we’re talking about miracles, I want consistency about the earthly bits at the very least. Moreover, it’s important for our question: if Constantine didn’t even carry a flag into battle, it can’t have popularised Christianity. If the only people who talk about the incident are Christians, who are writing for a predominantly Christian readership, then it certainly didn’t help.

So, in order to fully answer the OKCupid question, I am going to reword it slightly and open up the scope: did Constantine make Christianity popular? And the answer to that is a tentative “ish”. What Constantine did was make Christianity legal with the Edict of Milan and made some minor steps towards conciliation with churches. He also legalised and patronised a number of other religious groups, like sun worship, which were also pretty popular. He didn’t make it a state religion, he didn’t become a Christian until his deathbed, and he didn’t promote Christianity. None of the stories about his experiences as Malvian Bridge come from Constantine, they come from Christian writers. He never went out of his way to popularise or encourage Christianity. But he DID legalise it. And that’s a huge step for the growth of Christianity that allowed it to become a genuine force in the world.


The other important thing Constantine did for Christianity was to sort of pick one group of christians over the rest by getting involved in the Council of Nicea, the council which produced the Nicene Creed. One of the central issues under debate there was the relationship between Christ the Son and God the Father, because this is the kind of thing that was super important at the time. On the one side was the Arians, arguing that Christ was subordinate to God, was created by God and was therefore not God. On the other was the Catholics arguing that the Father and Son and Holy Spirit were all equal, consubstantial (of the same substance) and “unbegotten”-they had all existed before time and none were created. Heady stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. If indeed you have been able to contain your excitement this far.

This kind of dry, Greek jargon heavy theological argument caused SERIOUS problems for early Christianity because it split the small amount of Christians there were, then made the whole religion look very confusing and intimidating from the outside. To the extent that interested converts might have benefited from a leaflet titled “I’m interested in Christ, but which one is best for me?” At Nicea, presided over by Constantine, the Arians lost and were declared heretics for their denial of the Trinity. This gave the Catholics the air of being the proper church and made everyone else look like splitters. So accidental though this likely was, it was useful for Christianity.

But here’s the big thing. Prior to Constantine, Christians are in a very difficult position. Specifically, they are being relentlessly persecuted.(5) And having members be tried, tortured and brutally murdered in public is not the kind of thing that tends to attract people to your group.(6) And those that it does attract have an awkward and embarrassing tendency to renounce their faith when presented with a sword, which causes all sorts of recruitment problems.(7) And for all the attractions of Christianity, this kind of thing limits how far a movement can grow and completely prevents it from being able to engage openly in public life. And the ancient world is 100% focussed on public life. When Constantine legalises Christianity, he allows people in public and political positions to be able to openly practice as Christians; he allows Christianity to be a genuine part of the power structures of the empire throughout the empire; and he makes being a Christian a much less dangerous proposition.

Being a Christian no longer has to be one’s entire identity, as it is for martyrs, priests and authors, it can simply be a part of one’s whole life. Which means that married people, older people, people with children, people who don’t want to die horribly can all join in. So in this way, yes, Constantine made Christianity more popular because he made it accessible. But no, carrying the sign of Christ (which ever it was) into battle did not. 


And I answered that question without even considering the question of whether Constantine’s conversion was real. Because that’s a question for another day. 





(1) This is a Chi Rho:
(2) It is, however, a fantastically entertaining work and one of my all time favourites. This is the account of Licinius’s death: “and in the anguish and dismay of his mind, he sought death as the only remedy of those calamities that God had heaped on him. But first he gorged himself with food, and large draughts of wine, as those are wont who believe that they eat and drink for the last time; and so he swallowed poison. However, the force of the poison, repelled by his full stomach, could not immediately operate, but it produced a grievous disease, resembling the pestilence; and his life was prolonged only that his sufferings might be more severe. And now the poison began to rage, and to burn up everything within him, so that he was driven to distraction with the intolerable pain; and during a fit of frenzy, which lasted four days, he gathered handfuls of earth, and greedily devoured it. Having undergone various and excruciating torments, he dashed his forehead against the wall, and his eyes started out of their sockets.” (De Mort 49) SO MUCH FUN! Read the whole thing on the wonderful Church Fathers site. 


(3) This is a staurogram:!Staurogram.svg/85px-Staurogram.svg.png


(4) This is a labarum. totally different:


(5) The reasons for the persecutions are varied, contentious and a specific legal basis for them has never been agreed on. Geoffrey De St Croix and Adrian Sherwin-White maintained an debate in the journal Past and Present throughout the 1960s on the legal basis for the Christian persecutions and never came to a decision. 


(6) This isn’t strictly true. It does, it attracts plenty of people. But it does tend to limit the number and type of people who join in, and keeps Christianity a religion for the young, the unattached and the weird. 


(7) Christianity is, as you’ve probably noticed, the kind of religion that likes to in-fight and split up. And what to do with people who were baptised as Christians and renounced their faith during a persecution only to request rebaptism when the persecution was over caused fights like you wouldn’t believe and accusations of heresy all over, that occasionally devolved so far that there would be two bishops of Rome: a pope and an anti-pope. A refusal to let people re-join the church also didn’t help with the numbers. 


31 Dec

If you ask anyone with a degree in classics or ancient history about Troy, chances are they’ll tell you they hate it. Ohh it’s terribly inaccurate, they’ll say, coins weren’t even INVENTED in the bronze age! The Trojan war lasted for ten years not 3 days and it had gods in it, and no-one says rosy-fingered dawn even ONCE! Homer must be turning in his grave! They may shake their heads at this point and look sad. They may, if they’re an undergraduate and a bit hyperbolic, say it hurt to watch. Secretly however, most of them are lying to you. Professional classicists and historians bloody love Troy because it’s a ridiculous pile of tosh and it’s thus absolutely hilarious. Most of us gave up caring about accuracy a long, long time ago because worrying about “accuracy” is killer boring. Who REALLY wants a story to be told the same way every single time?(0) Even the Greeks didn’t bother with that. We WANT to see what people have done with the worlds and people and stories we love. We like it. (shhhh)

What’s appealing for people like me (aka, institutionalised overthinkers) is that Wolfgang Petersen and David Benioff decided to make a film that pins its heart on its sleeve, then spends three hours pointing at that sleeve and shouting “look look, my heart is pinned to my sleeve!” Which is brilliant for people like me, because it means we can write about it, and that’s our favourite thing. See look, I’m writing about it now. I could probably write a book about Troy, hell people HAVE written books about Troy, but for now I’m going to focus on things that I found most interesting when I watched last week during the train journey from hell.

In part, Troy’s openness about its intentions is because of Homer’s original text. It, along with the Odyssey (a better book, *cough cough*), ends up being a sort of codification of Greek culture and identity: what a good Greek person does in certain situations, what is important to Greeks and how to deal with things. Here’s an incomplete list of things that are important according to the Iliad and the Odyssey: Gods, correct religious observance, male honour, female chastity, wrath as a virtue, being a good host and being a good guest. One of the main reasons that the Trojans are bad guys in the book is that stealing your host’s wife is very poor guest behaviour.(1) And is a terrible, terrible insult to your host’s honour. Now, because the Iliad contains so much narrative that acts to provide examples of good or bad behaviour for Greeks, these exemplars have to be adapted for modern audiences with modern mores. Which means that any adaptation of the Iliad that is even tangentially faithful ends up being an accidental manifesto of idealised behaviour in a specific culture by the writer/director.

And so it is with Troy. And weirdly, as a result of this, the heroes and villains of the Iliad are flipped. Achilles becomes a selfish, oversexed bag of dicks, all threesomes and crop tops and waxing and being mean to small children. He is still a warrior, but now he’s described as a warlord and that’s definitely not a good thing. He is consumed with his honour, but personal and familial honour are now selfish and silly and pointless. Attributes the Greeks desired are, in Troy, reviled. The true villain though is Agamemnon, a power mad imperialist tosspot whose favourite things are crushing kingdoms beneath him, receiving presents from subject kings and raping ladies. All frankly weird(2). The Trojans meanwhile, spend their time being perfect kings (Priam), perfect sons /husbands/fathers/hairy hotties(Hector) and declaring that they’ll never be ruled by another nation while resisting the mad imperial desires of Agamemnon. This is the kind of narrative jiggering that is making Homer turn in his grave. The reason Petersen/Benioff had to come up with all this Greek imperialism silliness is that gathering a huge army, sacrificing your daughter and then spending a decade sitting on a beach staring at a city just for a girl seems totally bloody ridiculous to modern eyes. But Agamemnon does it, so we’re going to have to come up with a better reason. What’s the only reason Petersen can think of for doing such a thing? Money. But Money is bad? So the Greeks must be bad. Logical for sure, but also hilarious. And frankly, an uncomfortably intimate look into Petersen’s mind.

Which brings me to my second point. Petersen has to do all this because he has decided for some reason that he wants to make a “realistic” version of the Trojan war. One that conforms to his ideas of realistic rather than, say, a Greek’s or mine or yours. Which results in a tangle of plot wrangling and a whole lot of weirdness for a classicist. The first thing he does is take the gods out. If you’ve read the Iliad then you’ll know that this is the height of hilarity, because the gods in Homer aren’t just disinterested sky pixies, they’re characters. Main characters. Whose whims and arguments and powers have huge effects on the narrative. Several times, in order to save the lives of their favourites, they PICK PEOPLE UP AND MOVE THEM OUT OF THE WAY. Their interactions with each other and with the mortals are fundamental to the Iliad. But Petersen wants this to be “real” and “human” so gone they are, and with them half the book. Though the characters still talk about the gods plenty, as mystical forces unreachable and disinterested. Achilles himself is borderline atheist and openly irreligious (cutting the head of a statue is the kind of thing that would get you exiled in classical Athens incidentally), while at the other end of the spectrum is Priam, the doddery old man listening to omens and priests instead of good mortal logic. Hector fills Petersen’s ideal spot, as the agnostic who honours the gods but doesn’t let them dictate his life. As presumably Petersen does and in a way that is laughable in the context of the Iliad itself. But this is “real life” and the “real” Trojan war. And real life for Petersen doesn’t really include religion. Indeed, he has his Hector tell Paris that “Gods won’t fight this war for us.” Which, had he read the book, he would know wasn’t true.

The next bit of “realism” is that Paris and Helen have to be deeply in love with one another, properly. In a tragic, Romeo and Juliet, “I’m not afraid of dying, I’m only afraid of tomorrow, when you leave…” way. This means that they take up a good portion of the first bit of the film. You’d think the film was about them and their love affair from the first hour as Petersen desperately tries to convince us that they are a fated couple, crazy in love on both sides, both willing to die for the other; that Menelaus is a terrible child rapist that Helen has to escape from(3), and that Paris is a good catch despite being wimpy eyelinered twerp that only a Directioner could possibly fall for. Still, better than his Greek incarnation which is deranged woman stealer who sets out on a mission specifically to abduct Helen because Aphrodite said he could have her, thus massively pissing off Menelaus and Agamemnon and letting a war happen. Agamemnon’s mercenary imperial ambitions are linked to this new “realism” too, as I already said, if you were paying attention. A war for a girl is a rubbish reason once the idea of honour is cast as being petty. Again, Hector tells the audience what Petersen wants us to believe: “Only children and fools fight for honour” he tells Achilles, “I fight for my country.”(4) So Menelaus and Agamemnon have to have a “good” and “realistic” reason. 

Which all brings us back to the beginning: as a result of all these little choices and decisions, a big decision was made to make the Greeks the bad guys. As the invading force,(5) led by the man Helen is running from and is frightened to return to, whose main warrior is horrible to children and refers to himself as inhuman. And then the Greeks win, and Petersen gets a bit pornographic with the gore. How many children do we really need to see thrown down stairs and women snatched up? The destruction of Troy is total and horrific, and we empathise with the fleeing Trojans (including Aeneas, who is given the special Trojan sword by Paris and manages to mispronounce his own name. Paris has to pronounce it right for him, and Paris is a complete moron so that doesn’t give one much confidence for Rome. Or for any imaginary Petersen adaptation of the Aeneid). Quite what the point of this is, I have no idea. Unless its the theory posited in footnote five, in which case Petersen is even more tedious than I suspect he is.(6)

All this comes together to make a ridiculous film, full of mad lines like “IMMORTALITY! TAKE IT! IT’S YOURS!” and “LOOK UPON ME AND DESPAIR!” and the repeated insistence that Patroclus is definitely definitely Achilles’ cousin and not his boyfriend, god I can’t believe you’d even think that how gross what’s wrong with you. Because apparently Petersen, and the culture he is representing here, is really, really uncomfortable with gay people. And for people like me, who have attempted to make their obsession with a dead world into a viable career, it’s brilliant, full to the brim of things to think about and fascinating new interpretations of a millennia old story. And while I could pretend to care about the general public’s reception of it, right now I don’t. And I’m going to watch it again. With a notebook.

(0) For a good recap of Troy, with comparisons to the various Trojan war myths, see my good friend Juliette’s blog.
(1) Of course, if you know your Greek mythology, you know that this isn’t entirely poor Paris’s fault. it was brought about by the Judgment of Paris. He was asked by the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite which was the most beautiful, because he was considered by the gods to be the fairest mortal alive. Each naturally offered him a bribe, because who doesn’t want to be the hottest goddess: Hera offered to make him king of all of Europe, Athena offered to make him a great warrior and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, who was Helen. Paris picks Aphrodite, gets to take Helen home with him and causes a massive fuss for a decade and the deaths of thousands. Regrets, he’s had a few…

(2) Worth putting next to 300 too, which is fantastical but which I think the Greeks would have prefered as an image of themselves: they resisted imperialism fiercely and were independent to a fault. They rarely trusted the people from the next city over, and it took drastic threats like the Persians or the theft of a woman to unite them. This is the image you get in 300, while in Troy you are told that the Greeks united involuntarily, under the command of a dictator-king, an image the Greeks would have violently rejected. While we’re at it, I think the Greeks would have enjoyed the 300 depiction of the Persians as giants, literal monsters and sex fiends too.

(3) Interestingly, Petersen and Benioff have Helen declare that she was 16 when she was married to Menelaus. To an American audience, this likely sounds terribly young and is two years below the American age of consent. In much of Europe, 16 either is or is above the age of consent, and is the legal age of marriage. So, this throwaway line is a fascinating little glimpse into the way that Troy has been constructed to reflect the morals and mores of one specific culture and a specific point in time.

(4) Another little pointer that this film is a snapshot of a specific form of American culture. Honour is weird, Gods are distant and uncaring, patriotism above all.

(5) Only the laziest of viewers would suggest this was some kind of commentary on the Iraq war so I won’t.

(6) I’m pretty sure 5 is right. I could make a case for it, but I think I’d die of boredom. Was anything made between 2004 and 2006 that wasn’t an ill-informed, reactionary  commentary on Iraq?


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